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Don’t Go in the Water: Sunburn and The Surfer 

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Rereads and Rewatches Teen Horror Time Machine

Don’t Go in the Water: Sunburn and The Surfer 

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Published on August 10, 2023

The summer fun in ‘90s teen horror has proven more dangerous than relaxing, with the repressed memories and attempted murders of High Tide and The Dead Lifeguard, the horrors of Camp Fear, the thrills and chills of Funhouse and Fear Park. But maybe—just maybe—our teen protagonists can catch a break hanging out with their friends, going for a quick run on the beach, or walking to the pier to check out the waves, right?  Nope, definitely not. Mayhem and murder follow wherever these teens go, including Claudia Walker’s trip to her friend’s beach house in R.L. Stine’s Sunburn (1993) and the mysterious new girl who literally washes up on the beach in Linda Cargill’s The Surfer (1995). 

Following in the tradition of Stine’s Beach Party and Beach House, in the Fear Street book Sunburn, Claudia heads to her friend Marla’s beach house for some unsupervised fun with Marla, Joy, and Sophie, friends she made last year at summer camp. It’s a bit of a tense reunion: last year’s summer camp casts a long shadow of shared trauma, which readers gradually find out stems from the accidental death of Marla’s younger sister, Alison. The girls are a bit uncertain about whether it’s a good idea for them to get together again and whether this will bring up all kinds of painful memories for Marla, but Marla sidesteps these concerns by vehemently refusing to talk about her sister at all and getting angry with her friends when they mention Alison. 

The series of “accidents” that quickly start to pile up put a damper on the fun and ratchet the tension up even further. When Claudia falls asleep on the beach, she wakes up to find herself buried in the sand and unable to move, with a killer sunburn and the tide quickly moving in. Sophie is electrocuted by the security fence and Joy wakes up in her bed with leeches all over her. Marla attempts to shrug these incidents off as odd accidents, rather than malicious attacks, and the girls find themselves going along to get along for a ridiculously long time and at their own peril. Claudia is attacked by Marla’s guard dog while she’s walking on the beach and in one of the most bizarre sequences of events in the whole Fear Street series (not a low bar!), Claudia saves herself by swimming out into the ocean in an attempt to evade the dog and almost gets attacked by a shark, though the shark ends up eating the dog instead, which Stine describes in gruesome, bloody detail: while Claudia is trying to swim to safety, “a geyser of blood boiled up from beneath the water. The foamy crest of a wave turned pink. The metallic smell of blood floated out over the tossing waves” (114). As Claudia tries to get beyond the blood in the water and the shark’s presumed feeding, she keeps bumping into bloody bits of what’s left of the dog, becoming increasingly hysterical and exhausted before she finally just passes out and somehow manages not to drown, with the tide washing her up onto the beach and to safety. 

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Camp Damascus
Camp Damascus

Camp Damascus

There are also boys complicating matters, causing tension between the girlfriends, and posing dangers of their own. First, there’s the tall, dark, and handsome Daniel, who digs Claudia out of the sand before the tide can rise high enough to drown her. He walks her back to the house and seems like a more or less good guy, but he’s pretty cagey about who he is, where he lives, and how he knows the house (and its security code!). When Claudia tells the other girls about her knight in orange swim trunks, Marla tells the spooky story of a ghost boy who haunts the house’s grounds and fits Daniel’s description, convincing her friends that Daniel is the ghost before bursting out laughing and admitting that she made the whole thing up, though for some inexplicable reason, Claudia continues to refer to him as the “ghost boy” and wonder whether or not Daniel is actually a ghost for the rest of book. (Spoiler alert: he’s not.) 

Daniel is mysterious, but Carl and Dean are the real danger. These two guys show up on the beach when the girls are hanging out, refuse Marla’s request that they get off her property, aggressively help themselves to the girls’ picnic lunch, and generally ignore personal boundaries or even common manners as they crowd in on and harass Claudia and her friends. Marla is well within her rights to be on edge and upset about two strange young men forcing themselves onto her private property and into the girls’ personal space, but after the boys have finally left, Claudia’s first question to Marla is “why’d you give those guys such a hard time?” (49) Sophie and Joy are a little bummed out too, saying the boys are cute and that while they may be a little scary, they’re probably fine. Carl and Dean’s paths continue to mysteriously cross with those of the girls, bumping into them at the boardwalk in town on a night out and zooming to the rescue when the line breaks as Sophie is water skiing and she gets caught in a riptide, though it turns out they stole the boat they used to rescue her. Carl and Dean remain peripheral to the central action of the novel and actually end up being relatively harmless, which is pretty horrifying in its own right, with their behavior presented as something that girls just have to deal with, politely and with a smile if they don’t want to risk potential violence.

All of this bizarre intrigue is nothing compared to the real secret, though: Marla’s been dead and stashed in the garden shed for the whole week and the girl they thought was Marla is actually her younger sister, Alison, who didn’t die at camp at all. The older girls had dared Alison to walk across a fallen log over a chasm one night and when the camp counselors came looking for them all, the other girls ran away while Alison fell. Though Alison was presumed dead, her body was never recovered, and she tells them that she found a nice family, faked amnesia, and let them take care of her while she plotted her revenge on Marla and her friends, before sneaking back to the family’s beach house, killing Marla, and inviting the other girls over. This all seems a bit far-fetched, even by Fear Street standards: it’s not like Marla and Alison are identical twins or even bear a particularly strong resemblance to one another, based on early descriptions, and while the other girls haven’t seen Marla for a year, surely they would notice that she looks, sounds, and acts different. When they do notice anything off about Marla, they attribute it to the trauma she has suffered and Marla/Alison keeps them from digging too deeply by absolutely refusing to talk about last summer at all. When Alison’s secret is discovered, she attempts to flee, but ends up electrocuted by the security fence that (like Sophie before her) she was sure was off. While Sophie was shaken up but survived, between Alison’s panic, the rain, and somehow getting her hand caught in the fence, Alison isn’t so lucky. Claudia, Sophie, and Joy are traumatized—again—but not so much so that Claudia doesn’t stop to kiss Daniel as they’re walking across the yard and away from Alison’s smoldering body. 

Cargill’s The Surfer is built around secrets as well, though these secrets are much older and more powerful than Alison’s presumed death. The three main characters of The Surfer—Jessie, Nick, and Marina—are all comfortable and capable in the water, with Jessie and Nick being competitive high school swimmers and Marina coasting into their lives while riding the waves on her surfboard, just before she falls into the water and appears to drown. Jessie jumps into the water to try to save Marina and almost drowns herself, with Nick jumping in to rescue Jessie. Jessie is almost certain that she had a hand on Marina in the water, but the mysterious girl is nowhere to be found … until Nick’s family gets back from a cruise with the news that the ship rescued a girl out of the ocean. Yep, you guessed it. Nick’s dad is a doctor and helped take care of Marina on the ship and when they got back to port, Nick’s mom decided that the most logical course of action would be to bring this stranger home with them and take care of her until Marina’s family can be found, which proves tricky because just like Sunburn’s Alison, Marina is ALSO faking amnesia. (How often does this happen? How easy is amnesia to fake? Shouldn’t there be trained mental health professionals involved who would spot this subterfuge? Apparently not.) 

To be fair, Nick’s mom doesn’t really have a whole lot of choice in the matter, because it turns out that Marina isn’t quite what she seems and she is able to influence others, bending them to her will through a kind of hypnosis. As Nick discovers Marina’s dark history, he learns that she is a witch named Ingrid who has plagued his family since the 1890s, when she saved the life of great grandfather Captain Olaf Steiveson and cast a spell binding him to her for life. As Olaf discovered the truth about his bride—who can also turn those who displease her into animals, Circe-style—his eye and heart began to roam. While his wife stayed in Norway, Olaf took a mistress and fathered a child in Virginia.He planned to run away with them at the earliest opportunity, but this plan was thwarted by Ingrid, who snuck along on the voyage disguised as the ship’s cat, only to transform, destroy the ship, and kill Olaf before he could make his escape. Ingrid has stalked the family for years, killing at least one member of each generation, and now—as Marina—it seems she is back to wreak vengeance on the latest bunch of Steivesons. 

Like Sunburn, there’s some complicated boy trouble in The Surfer as well, though in this case there’s just one boy (Nick) and he’s almost completely not creepy. Jessie and Nick’s relationship is complicated, or perhaps just ill-defined. In Jessie and Nick’s first interaction in The Surfer, Jessie thinks that “Nick presumed too much. Sometimes she thought he was just following her around. Just because he was a senior and she was only a junior, he thought he was all grown up and sort of like a big brother” (5). Jessie and Nick have known each other most of their lives and are both swimmers on the same team, though Nick is much more competitive than Jessie is, a record-breaker while Jessie’s decent but no superstar. As the book starts, Jessie is also annoyed with Nick because Nick told Jessie’s mom that Jessie went to the beach and the pier when she’d been told to stay away from it (two guys had died there recently, their deaths are under investigation, and the police have marked the area off-limits, which seems like a pretty good reason to tell your kid not to go there). Jessie and Nick do share a kiss on the beach, but that’s the extent of their romantic engagement throughout the book—no dates, no notes, no plans. In fact, as Marina begins to come between them, they’re almost completely estranged, hardly even speaking to one another, and when they do, it’s only to argue. But when Nick is wracking his brain trying to figure out why Marina might be targeting Jessie, he thinks to himself that Jessie “was his girlfriend, but they were not married or even engaged” (156-157).  He’s pretty clear on how he feels about Jessie and what their relationship is, telling her that he loves her and always will in the midst of their final showdown with Marina. Jessie seems a little less certain, writing in her diary that “I guess he’s sort of become my boyfriend” (160, emphasis original), which seems both unclear and unintentional, like she just sort of fell into couplehood with Nick and is maybe a bit bewildered to find herself in this relationship (if it is a relationship). They have apparently gone from rivals to a kind of sibling-type bond to romantic interest and finally, boyfriend and girlfriend (maybe?) with levels of love and trust in one another capable of breaking the magic of a powerful witch, but there’s not much in the middle to explain how they have shifted from one type of relationship to another or how either of them feel about it. They save each others’ lives and it all works out in the end, so that’s probably good enough anyway. 

While Jessie vacillates between being under Marina’s control, fighting Marina’s power, and pretending she’s still under Marina’s spell in an attempt to protect the people she loves, in the end, she’s pretty steadfast and saves everyone, including Nick—though maybe not as soon as he would like, since he ends up with a concussion and broken arm when a tree falls on his car and later, is in a coma and expected to die after almost drowning. Jessie brings him back from the brink of death with her own magical powers… because it turns out that Marina’s not really after the Steivesons this time after all, but rather Jessie and her family, who are the descendents of Ingrid and Olaf’s daughter. This seems to fill in some blank spaces that had previously mystified Jessie, who “had always thought herself peculiar. She constantly daydreamed and had experienced premonitions and nightmares all her life. Now it was explained” (177). She feels this power emerging when Nick’s life hangs in the balance, as she holds his hand in the hospital and “felt a strength welling up in her that she had never guessed she possessed before. Ordinary, plain Jessie was not ordinary or plain anymore” (176). Every family has some weird, supernatural secrets, it seems. While Jessie’s mother always seems to find fault in her daughter and be dedicated to quashing what she sees as Jessie’s “worst tendencies” (178)—like the daydreaming and belief in premonitions that are so illuminating for Jessie—this isn’t because she’s mean but because she just doesn’t want her daughter to accidentally turn into an evil witch capable of stealing people’s souls or wield horrific power to manipulate and hurt other people.

Discovering and claiming this power is central to Jessie’s success, however. She has tapped into a strength she didn’t know she had and while she has the opportunity to make the same bargain that Ingrid did—to save a guy’s life in exchange for his soul—it’s one Jessie doesn’t take. She saves Nick, but makes no claim on his soul. She also takes on Marina in direct conflict, steals the source of her power (her magic eyeball), frees Olaf Steiveson, and destroys the witch. She breaks the curse and saves everyone she cares about, including Nick and her mother, and gets to know herself and what she’s capable of while doing so. She even manages to inadvertently save Nick’s dad when she destroys Ingrid, whose magic has started turning Nick’s dad into a pig one bit at a time, starting with a single foot. There’s no dark foreshadowing that Jessie will become enamored of this power or use it for ill, with the story ending in one big group hug. 

In both Sunburn and The Surfer, dark secrets are at the heart of all the chaos that ensues, though they are secrets of a very different sort. In Sunburn, the girls’ feelings of guilt over Alison’s death haunt Claudia and her friends, since their dare was the reason Alison was out on the log to begin with, and when the counselors came they ran into the woods rather than staying to help Alison back to safety. Alison is keeping plenty of secrets of her own, of course, the biggest ones being that she’s not actually dead and she’s not actually Alison. But The Surfer works on a much larger scale, with family secrets buried generations back, including a curse that works its way from one Steiveson to the next and Jessie’s mother keeping the secret of her witch-y ancestor in the misguided hope of insulating her daughter from the effects of this magical lineage. In the end, none of these secrets can be effectively kept and the truth must come out. When those revelations hit, the choices the characters make reveal who they are and what they’re willing to sacrifice for those they love.

Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Alissa Burger

Author

Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.
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